The following story was originally posted on March 17, 2008. When I learned that it contained a factual error, IÂ immediately took itÂ down.Â The story has now been corrected. Please accept my apology.
Materva (a contraction of mate and erva) just could be the original yerba mate soft drink. TheÂ origin of Materva reportedly dates back to the 1920′s. This unique, carbonated beverage was marketed by LaPaz, S.A., a bottling company in Cuba, but following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, LaPaz was nationalized as part of the Communist movement. The popular yerba mate drink could have disappeared forever, but thanks to another Cuban company, itÂ became available in the United States.
There has been a lot of attention focused on Cuba lately because of Fidel Castro’s resignation. I happened to be attending a conference in Florida the same day he resigned. That evening, my wife and I went to Miami’s Little Havana District for dinner. The Versailles Restaurant was the hub of excitement as Cubans celebrated in the street and the parking lot outside. There were bright lights, flags, placards, reporters, TV cameras, news vans and dignitaries everywhere as cars paraded by, honking and waving. Truly a happening!
When we had enough celebration, we finally went inside the restaurant and ordered dinner and a Materva. Looking around the busy dining room, I noticed Materva on several other tables too. This was no big surprise because I have ordered the yerba mate soda in Cuban restaurants all over the country. They always have it.
Materva has almost a “cult” following among Cubans. It is one of those sacred memories of the good times enjoyed on the island nation prior to its capture by Castro. Today, Materva is produced in Miami by Cawy Bottling Co., Inc. Knowing that I would be in the area, I scheduled an interview with Vicente E.Â Cossio, the Executive Vice President/General Manager of Cawy.
Cawy Bottling Company, founded in 1948, was a thriving business with four bottling plantsÂ in Cuba prior to the Revolution, but when Castro took control in 1959 and started nationalizing private enterprise, many Cubans fled to the U.S. Two of the displaced Cawy owners, Vincent Cossio (Vicente’s father) andÂ Nestor Machado, reunited in Miami and decided to resurrect the Cawy name.
With financial backing from two Cuban investors,Â Celestino Villalba and Frank Garcia, the company was recreatedÂ on U.S. soil in 1964. Nestor Machado died shortly afterÂ operations began and the company purchased his share from his estate. Cawy Bottling CompanyÂ is thriving today and remains closely held by theÂ Cossio, Garcia and VillalbaÂ families.
In mid-1994, Vincent Cossio became very ill, so inÂ late 1995 his son, Vicente, a civil engineer by training, stepped in to run the business. Vicente speaks of his father’s accomplishments with great pride and respect, but it is obvious that he has had a positive impact on the company too.
Cawy’s beginnings in the United States revolved around Lemon-Lime soda, one of the best selling soft drinks in Cuba. Marketing proved to be more challenging than they anticipated however, with competition from long-established U.S. companies. The Cawy soda may have been a big seller in Cuba, but in the U.S. its acceptance was marginal apart from loyal Cuban exiles.
The company looked for another beverage to add to its product line and they decided on Materva, an unrelated competitor in Cuba. The elder Cossio contacted the owners of LaPaz to arrange a takeover of the Materva brand. Vicente describes it this way: “At that time, the thought was — hey, next year we’re going to be back in Cuba. This is only a transitional thing. Well, history has shown that we’re almost fifty years into this now and we’re not going to celebrate next Christmas in Cuba!”
Materva was an iconic brand in Cuba. They sponsored many sporting events and even boasted one of the very first arrangements to use Disney characters to promote their product as seen on this glass pitcher.
Vicente Cossio, was nine years old when he came to the U.S. with his family. He recalls early memories of his father’s attempts to recreate the famed Materva for Cuban Americans. In the early days, they could not buy a yerba mate extract; they had to figure out how to make it at their plant. It took several months of trial and error, and lacking an exact formula, the final test was passed when there was a consensus among many Cuban friends and employees that the flavor was truly “Materva.” Today, the yerba mate extract is available from outside sources.
In Cuba, Materva was produced in 7 ounce bottles. Vicente showed me some of his prized collection of early Materva bottles from Cuba — with labels in Spanish of course. The one picturedÂ (to the left)Â is from 1947. Later, in the U.S. they added 10 ounce bottles. Today, most Cawy beverages are sold in familiar 12 ounce cans orÂ 2 liter PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Future product expansion will include the introduction of 20 ounce PET bottles.
The Materva logo has experienced a few minor changes over the years; a yerba mate branch, a mate and a bombillaÂ are nowÂ emblazoned in the center. As we talked, I spotted a beautiful handcarved gourd on a shelf and asked Vicente if Cubans drank yerba mate the way South Americans do — from a mate, with a bombilla. He answered with an emphatic “No! That’s the amazing thing. In Cuba, they didn’t drink mate!” But, they sure did drink Materva and adding it to the Cawy line was a great first step in product diversification.
Over the succeeding years, Cawy strategically acquired or developed many other popular beverages with Cuban origins, such as: Jupina, Watermelon, Coco Solo, Quinabeer, Malta Cawy, Fruti Cola, Rica and even Diet Materva. The company is now expanding into non-Cuban markets too and Vicente discussed plans to add new production facilities. He even showed me new Miami TV commercials directed to larger markets.
Materva is a tradition for CubansÂ – not so muchÂ for the health benefits ofÂ yerba mate (even thoughÂ the benefits are emphasized) –Â but for the taste. It’s different; it’s refreshing;Â it’sÂ good!Â A few years ago, the “Miami New Times” proclaimed Materva as the Best Local Soft Drink in Miami. Try it — no matter where you live.